Working effectively with suppliers

Creative agencies large and small rely on external resources to get the job done. It simply makes great business sense. But how do you get the most out of your third party suppliers?

We help creative agencies improve their operations to make working with suppliers easier, smoother and more efficient. The results can save time, impress clients and reduce the common hassles that often come when engaging a third party.

Find them before you need them

Many agencies fall into the trap of recruiting suppliers after being appointed for a project. This places unnecessary time constraints on your search. By considering your skills gap and dedicating time to finding a variety of suppliers that complement your services, you’ll be ready when that client job hits your inbox.

Carolyn Stebbing, Director of Little Village Creative says she’s totally open about collaborating with external freelancers. “We tap into specialist expertise to get the best outcome for our clients,” she said. “We're not restricted by location when it comes to finding great people.

“We work with people who don’t fit the traditional full-time workforce model. These are experienced, top-of-their-game professionals who may be looking for flexibility, but are also 100% accountable and can deliver the goods without having their hand held. They might be a stay-at-home-parent, or keen on work ad-hoc simply for health or lifestyle reasons. If we’re keen to work with them, we ensure we have clear supplier agreements in place before any work starts - and once our freelancers are officially part of the fold, we call on them regularly for various projects. We love having their skills as part of the 'Village'!”

Don’t be limited by location

Cloud technology means agencies and consultants are no longer limited by geographical boundaries. Your perfect supplier may be in Brazil, Japan or South Africa – anywhere at all. There is often little need to meet face to face. By opening up a project beyond the geographical boundaries of your city or even country, you can choose the best from a bigger talent pool.

Consider time differences

Your UK-based supplier will be great for delivering overnight work, but will not be able to dial in to meetings. So if you do plan to use remote workers, consider the job requirements in advance.

Lock in supplier agreements

Before getting started on a project, negotiate the terms of any working relationship in advance. Take the time to negotiate elements like restricted terms, conflict of interest, confidentiality, payment terms and any other relevant subjects. It’s a good idea to have this formally signed by both parties. That way, when a brief comes in, everyone is set to go.

Give them an ironclad brief

Be clear on your brief. Many agencies make the mistake of engaging a supplier without specifying all the necessary information. This can result in shock costs and mismatched expectations later. Lock down the brief and use this as your central reference point during the project. Your brief should include:

  • Background and project context
  • Project objectives
  • What’s required, both broadly and specifically - e.g. a campaign to achieve x, y, z (broad) as well as 'deliver a website and social media assets' (specific).
  • Target audience
  • Budget specific to that supplier
  • Timings specific to that supplier (not the final due date!)
  • Any specs, mandatories, samples of previous work that met the brief and assets that the supplier may need to get the job done.

Fixed-fee is your friend

If you're a small operator, it's a good idea to negotiate a fixed fee for projects that have a limited budget (provided you have a very clear scope defined from the beginning). If you're engaging someone to work on a retainer client, you may be in a position to negotiate a daily rate or supplier retainer that will work for everyone involved. Of course, some jobs will require payment by the hour, but if you strive towards flat-fee arrangements your costs are fixed before the project begins.

Freelance copywriter Kate Merryweather of Dot Com Words works with many agencies and always provides flat fee prices. “Agencies appreciate having the total cost upfront,” she says. “Hourly rates can blow out if the brief changes. The challenge for me is accurately estimating the project fee to reflect the hours incurred. I manage this by being clear on the scope, and indicating well in advance if the work is out of scope, where the hourly rate will apply. I always track my hours, which gives me a good reference point for future quotations.”

Don’t get quotes just because you always get quotes

Competitive quotes are always a good idea on bigger jobs. But they’re often an unnecessary time sucker on little ones. Decide whether it's worth your while seeking out a competitive quote. You might be better off proceeding with your favourite trusted supplier rather than wasting time researching all sorts of other alternatives.

Do you want it good, fast or cheap?

The famous Project Management Triangle approach says you can only have two of these options at once. This can be a good reference when choosing a supplier. The expensive yet experienced guru, who bashes out high quality work at a speedy pace? Or the inexperienced yet cheap beginner who’s looking for runs on the board? Choose wisely based on your priorities.

Capture all your costs in one place

Even though your freelancer or external company supplier is not your employee, you can still set them up with project management software like WorkflowMax. This does wonders in accurately capturing time spent and project costs. Without this, agencies can easily misrepresent the total project cost if they don’t include all elements of third-party expenses, accidentally undercharging and losing valuable margin. The insights you gather from previous projects can also help you to estimate time and expenses more accurately for future projects.

There is no hard and fast way to set up contractors in WorkflowMax. It is not necessary for all projects, but it makes sense for semi-permanent contractors. Either get the contractor to enter their time directly, or use WorkflowMax to raise purchase orders and monitor invoices. Regardless of how you track hours or costs incurred, your should strive to accurately capture the supplier’s project input.

Treat suppliers as you would treat your staff

Suppliers are an extension of your workforce. Respect them and importantly, pay them on time. Freelancers and suppliers talk amongst themselves and you don’t want to get the reputation as the ‘difficult’ agency - funnily enough, you’ll find the best suppliers are always ‘busy’ when you come calling with projects, and the quality of your work will suffer. You are only as good as the people you work with – inside and outside your organisation.

“Freelancers are their own bosses, so they get to be choosy about who they work with,” says Carolyn. “We do our best to look after them by giving them a tight brief, offering constructive guidance throughout projects and importantly, we make sure we pay them on time. Talented people are not easy to replace, and we know we're only as good as the people we are fortunate to work with.”


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